EVERETT — Look hard enough at the backyards of the homes dotting Silver Lake while on the water and you might see the Mukilteo lighthouse blinking back.
You might say it’s a little like the real thing.
It’s Gary Fontes’ replica, meticulously reconstructed at one-twelfth the size of the original in 2017. The lighthouse led him down a path to three other projects borne out of the uncertainty and boredom of the pandemic. It has spawned an incredible hobby.
Fontes, 70, has four “little houses” — a term he prefers over “miniatures,” because this isn’t a train set — all lovingly made and intricately detailed. Three, all crafted since 2020, sit alongside the house, with the lighthouse around back.
“People tell me all the time, ‘You should sell them, you should do that,’ but then I go, ‘That’s a job, I don’t want it as a job,’” Fontes said. “I think it’s fun to do and I enjoy the people.”
The lighthouse can simulate the dull, mournful beacon used to steer mariners away from rocky shores. Nearly everything used in construction, outside of paint and fastening materials, is salvaged in one way or another.
Most of the wood is plywood, but not all. He brought over pieces of redwood after helping a neighbor tear down a garden shed. Some wood scraps came as leftovers from a funeral company.
His sons, Justin and Nathan Fontes, occasionally find materials or tools for their dad as well.
Nathan gave his dad a lathe as a present, and his dad used it to finish the spires on the most recent project, a castle.
Justin, who runs Integrity Machining, Inc & Kolstrand Marine Equipment in Marysville, has helped source a thing or two and occasionally lends a suggestion. One was to use a Computer Numeric Control (CNC) tool, which is helpful for cutting, carving and machining.
“He doesn’t want to cheat either, because, like, I own a machine shop and we could do this on a CNC or the water jet or whatever,” Justin Fontes said. “And he’s like, ‘Oh, no, I gotta do it by hand, you know?’ and I’m like, ‘OK … ’”
The castle is based on Florida’s Walt Disney World. Fontes said he looked at a number of different castles from across the world, but decided on the Disney one because it “just had more to it.”
The castle even has a moat. The drawbridge is made out of bamboo received from a friend. (Perhaps you sense a theme here.)
For Fontes’ second project, he found a photo of a spooky turn-of-the-century Victorian house. Like his other projects, there were no official plans. He finds images of structures he likes online and builds from there.
While Fontes has a keen artistic eye, it doesn’t extend to paper.
“I can’t draw a stick figure,” Fontes deadpanned.
Next to it sits a carriage house and a tiny outhouse. And yes, there is a mini toilet paper roll.
The spooky mansion boasts a working gutter system and die-cast models of pre-World War II cars in the driveway. Actual roofing shingles were used for the roof, painstakingly trimmed to scale. Justin found those. It was a process to get the tiny shingles right. First, the roofing was cut, then a half-inch copper pipe helped shape it.
“I just tapped, moved it over, tapped. I clamped it to my bench with a block of wood underneath it, the clamp, clamp, clamp, and you know, stamp, stamp, stamp, then move it over 10 inches,” Fontes said. “All that is to get the scallops all hand done to get it looking like that.”
A Lilliputian road connects the Victorian to a scale model of Fallingwater, the house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright over a series of waterfalls in southwest Pennsylvania. The famous architect designed over 1,000 structures in a period of 70 years.
Challenges piled up during Fontes’ recreation of Fallingwater. On the outside, the wall looks made of stone — like the real house. Stone, as it turns out, is heavy. Wood, less so. Weight matters as the structures get moved inside for the winter.
Fontes used cedar, coated to look like stone, with a redwood trim. The cedar was salvaged from fencing. The windows are plexiglass.
Somewhere between 300 to 500 hours of work went into the tiny Wright house. Toward the end, when Fontes gets close to finishing a project, he said he spends as many as 10 hours a day on it.
He thought about frosting the glass in order to hide the inside, but he chose a more difficult path and hand-decorated the interior: beds, dressers, tables and a couch.
“Stupid me, I decided to go clear,” Fontes said. “And if I decided to do clear, I might as well finish the inside.”
Like the real Wright creation, there’s a running water wheel feature as well.
Along the yellow brick road to the Disney castle, he built a small park with a swing set and a merry-go-round. A discarded fidget spinner was the key to making the merry-go-round spin.
A (mostly) retired construction worker, Fontes was a garage door hanger for many years. But he paid attention to what framers, plumbers and the host of other tradespeople did while he was on a job. He’d later use those skills to build the tiny houses.
Back in the late 1980s, he renovated his previous home in Snohomish — a rambler farmhouse — taking it from a single-story 1,200-square-foot house to a two-story 3,200-square-foot home. Fontes did the work in his spare time.
“His primary job was a garage door installer, so it wasn’t like he was even building houses,” Justin Fontes said. “But he was around it so much, with the framers and all the trades that go along with building houses. (He’s) just very observant and I think picked up on how everybody else went about their trade and that’s what gave him his ability.”
Fontes said he gets a fair number of interested passersby who stop and chat about the houses. They are always interested in the process, he said. It helps that Fontes is about as easygoing as a summer breeze. If he’s not around, there’s a metal placard that explains the project.
He does worry someone will vandalize the tiny homes, but so far that has not been an issue. Neighbors, like Lisa Jackson, think the fun-sized neighborhood brings something special to the street.
“During the pandemic, it was such a troubling time that his creations really stood out as something special and something helpful,” Jackson said. “It was heartwarming to see.”
Fontes said he has a few ideas for his next project, but nothing is set in stone — or cedar.